Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

George Key

Summary of Watts scandal
On January 24, 2004, 21-year-old Thomas Nash was asleep in the apartment at 559 East Browning Avenue where he lived with his aunt in the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago, Illinois. He was awakened when Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts put a hand on Nash’s chest.

“Watts pointed a gun at me and said words to the effect of “Where the shit at?” Nash later said. “I told Watts that I didn’t know what he was talking about, that I did not have any drugs, and that I did not sell drugs.”

At that point, officer Alvin Jones came into the bedroom and handcuffed Nash while Watts searched the room. After not finding anything illegal, Watts and Jones took Nash to the lobby of 574 East Browning Avenue, another building in the housing complex.

Several people were being held in handcuffs, including 41-year-old George Key, who had been arrested as he walked to his brother’s apartment. He said a friend called to him from a window in the building and asked him to come up to see him.

“Right after I entered the back door to the building, I saw several officers,” Key later said. “An officer whose name I do not know told me words to the effect of ‘We know you’re coming here to shop.’ I took him to mean that he thought I was coming to buy drugs. I told the officer that I was not coming to buy drugs. I was going to see my friend.”

Key was searched and, he said, police found nothing illegal.

Nash and Key were both arrested. Nash was accused of possessing 24 baggies of heroin and 11 baggies of cocaine. Key was charged with possession of one baggie of heroin, which the police said he purchased from Nash.

On March 9, 2004, Key pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two years of probation.

On March 22, 2004, Nash pled guilty in Cook County Circuit Court to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to two years of probation.

In 2012, Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed were caught on tape stealing money from a man they believed was a drug courier, but who was in fact working as a confidential FBI informant. In 2013, Watts and Mohammed pled guilty in U.S. District Court to taking money from the informant. Mohammed was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison. In 2021, Jones was stripped of his police powers and placed on administrative leave.

Federal prosecutors said Watts “used his badge and his position as a sergeant with the Chicago Police Department to shield his own criminal activity from law enforcement scrutiny. He recruited another CPD officer into his crimes, stealing drug money and extorting protection payments from the drug dealers who terrorized the community that he [Watts] had sworn to protect.”

In 2006, Ben Baker was convicted twice—once alone and a second time with his wife, Clarissa Glenn, on charges of narcotics possession based on false testimony from Watts. In 2015, Joshua Tepfer, an attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, filed a petition to vacate Baker’s first conviction, citing the corruption of Watts and his unit. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) agreed in January 2016 that Baker’s first conviction should be vacated, and the petition was granted. Later in 2016, a petition filed on behalf of Baker and Glenn also was granted.

Beginning in December 2016, Tepfer and attorney Joel Flaxman filed motions for new trials on behalf of dozens of men and women who claimed they were falsely convicted based on the corruption of Watts and his team. “The full known scope of the corrupt, more-than-decade-long criminal enterprise of Sergeant Watts…shows that Sergeant Watts led a tactical team of Chicago police officers that engaged in systematic extortion, bribery, and other related crimes…from as far back as the late 1990s through 2012,” their motions said.

The CIU began investigating the cases and agreed that the convictions should be vacated and dismissed. By the end of 2021, more than 90 convictions tainted by Watts and members of his unit had been dismissed.

On April 22, 2022, following an investigation by the CIU, Nash’s and Key’s convictions, along with more than 40 other convictions resulting from Watts and his fellow officers, were vacated and dismissed. The dismissals brought the total number of convictions vacated in the corruption scandal to more than 200. Key subsequently received a certificate of innocence, and was awarded $45,000 in compensation from the state of Illinois. Nash and Key filed a federal lawsuit in December 2022.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 5/10/2022
Last Updated: 2/4/2024
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Age at the date of reported crime:41
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No